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Looking Back: Return to Sound


John Kinnear

Aug 30, 2023

Age-related hearing loss is a fact of life for many including myself. It is a slow descent into a world of frustration at the inability to discern what is being said because of background noise or sounds that just don’t register.

Age-related hearing loss is a fact of life for many including myself. It is a slow descent into a world of frustration at the inability to discern what is being said because of background noise or sounds that just don’t register.  It has a technical name, presbycusis, which sounds more like a child’s disease that the curse that it is .  The most common word used by myself in the last few years has been the interrogative “what?”   

When I started cupping my hands around my ears to focus sounds I realized it was bad.  Straining to understand what was being said in meetings and turning on the “closed captions” on the TV just was not the answer. Asking for something to be repeated was embarrassing at times and tedious for others.  So in the months leading up to my 75th birthday I decided to do something about it. I had heard that work-related hearing loss fell under the coverage of Workmans Compensation and so I investigated this opportunity. In my case I had spent over thirty years in and around high decibel sounds at the coal mine I had worked at in the Elk Valley. 

In my early days there, hearing protection was not commonly used that much and the consequence of long term damage was never on my radar.   Fortunately for me the mine had a sound booth and religiously tested every employee every year.  

My very first step to deal with the absence of sounds was to travel to a hearing clinic in Lethbridge for testing.  I chose a company called Hearing Life and the representative there was super accommodating and thorough. Through the screening process my significant hearing loss was measured and a case was made.  A second test at another of their facilities a couple weeks later reaffirmed the assessment and also went a bit deeper with yet another hearing issue I struggle with, that being tinnitus.  This hissing, ringing ,omnipresent 24/7 -365 affliction has hounded me since 1991 and there is not much one can do with it. Training the brain to try to ignore it or using distractions like loud music has been the order of the day for me.  Sometimes it threatens to overpower my brain and there is no such thing for me as silence, ever!

At the facility the technician trained specific frequencies at me to see if he could match that of the tinnitus. He pointed out there is a possibility of partially masking it with sounds close to the same hissing frequency and that that option could potentially be added to my aids. 

Armed with this testing evidence, the next step for me was to officially apply to WorkSafe BC, the Workmans Compensation Board of British Columbia. The process involved an 8-page comprehensive application that included my two testing results. Amongst other things the forms  wanted to know everywhere I had worked since I had left college.  Wow, that was a story unto itself. 

Along with those two test results I had that other evidence I mentioned earlier. The mine that I had worked for so long was able to compile 20 years worth of audiometric testing into a chart that showed a distinct descent in hearing loss through those years. It was the coup de grace, so to speak, and a copy was added to the application.  It  is interesting to note that the Lethbridge tests so many years later more or less matched my very last test at the mine, which meant there was no significant hearing loss after I left that saturated sound environment and took retirement.

The WCB uses an independent audiologist to assess the application and a couple months later they acknowledged that I had a case and to proceed with ordering aids anywhere in Alberta I so chose.  So back I went to Hearing Life for measurements and more testing.  Just before my birthday my aids came in and I was fitted, coached and stepped back into the world of full sound. And what a step it was! During the fitting the technician demonstrated what I had been missing in a with/without exercise with a bird singing. I was astounded at what I was not hearing, to the point of tears.  Catching those sweet sounds on a walk is pretty important to me.

The process of adapting to hearing aids takes some time as the brain adjusts to this new level of cognizance. I was somewhat shocked at the low level nuances I had been missing, like the soft tinkle of my cat George’s collar bell. Beeps, clicks, distant barks all resurfaced.  I also became acutely aware of things like highway noise as I live a block off of it. A whole litany of missed sounds have come back and because of the aids design I can moderate them. In my case I am using slightly amplified background noise at times to blunt the never ending press of the tinnitus.  

With the Oticon brand hearing aids comes an app that helps you control volume and connection.  It connects via blue tooth to my phone and in quick order I realized that I could channel music to them. Being a huge CKUA fan I was delighted to find this radio station option. As well, I can set my phone to ring only in my aids and answered conversations are carried on with only I hearing what the caller is saying.

The app now has four options displaying on it that show as; P1, P2, P3 and P4 plus an option to connect to a remote microphone. How cool is that? It is a tiny square device that I can ask speakers to clip to their lapel, wear it with a lanyard around their neck or place on a table or podium in front of them. With it I get their direct speech to my ears unobstructed by crowd chatter or annoying air conditioning hums.   So P1 is normal hearing mode, P2 allows me to focus more on the sound in front of me (like in restaurants) rather than behind me.  P3 is my tinnitus soother and P4 is called my music and gives me a higher quality music sound, similar to ear buds. The P3 soother is in fact the slow rise and fall sounds of lapping waves on a beach.  There is even a streaming equalizer on the app that allows me to adjust low (bass), mid-range and high (treble sounds).  

Tehnology sometimes astounds me and we take so much for granted like how my phone tracks my walks and tells me how many steps I have taken in any given hour. Or how about this dandy.  Recently on a trip back from Creston I remembered that there is a time change sign near Moyie and I wondered about my phone displaying the correct time. I watched it and sure enough, shortly after passing the sign my phone adjusted its time by an hour. I mentally imagined a visible beam from a satellite tracking me. Yikes, big brother is watching!

I feel like I have some kind of advantage in some ways now. I can filter or enhance sounds. Case in point. Recently I walked up the Miners Path along Nez Perce Creek, a place that I often take solace.  I dialed my aids up a couple notches and to my delight the creek sounds came alive and my ears got to hear every single little gurgle and babble of this lovely water course.  It is a whole new world of sound for me in some ways. On the way up the path I actually picked up the skittering sounds of a squirrel some distance away in the bushes, before I ever saw him.  

There  is another interesting bonus. As you may have read, I chase trains for their art and the sound of their warning horn announces new opportunity. I now have more of an edge to catch one in time here in Coleman as I can hear their two long, one short, one long calls all the way from Blairmore. I call it my mural scramble. 

Sometimes the amplification is not that great. Like the shockingly loud sounds of a self-absorbed motorcyclist blasting by me on the highway. Their machines should have egometers not speedometers on them. Of course it seems that everyone, including myself, has chosen the old traditional phone ringing sound option for their cell phones. When it goes off in my ears I jump, which surprises those around me as they are not hearing what I do.  

All in all it has been an interesting journey rediscovering sounds and being able to hear clearly what anyone says to me. It’s not perfect by any means but I can assure you that if you are struggling with hearing issues take this step. You won’t regret it. Now if I can just remember to take them off when I step into the shower it would be nice.  

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